Festivals and Ceremonies of the "Khasis"

Music is integral to Khasi life, and whatever it lacks in formal sophistication of established schools and forms of music, it makes up in purity, beauty and a certain complexity in skilful rendering. Music everything in Khasi Life - every festival and ceremony from birth to death is enriched with music and dance. One can hear natural sounds enmeshed in the songs - the hum of bees, bird calls, the call of a wild animal, the gurgling of a stream.

One of the basic forms of Khasi music is the 'phawar', which is more of a "chant"; than a song, and are often composed on the spot, impromptu, to suit the occasion. Other forms of song include ballads & verses on the past, the exploits of legendary heroes, laments for martyrs. Khasi musical instruments (Ksing Shynrang, Ksing Kynthei) are also interesting because they support the song and the dance. Flutes and Drums of various types are used. The ubiquitous Drum taking on the most prolific role. Drums not only provide the beat for the festival, they are used to 'invite' people to the event.

"Tangmuri"(a kind of flageolet); "Shaw Shaw" (Cymbals); Percussion instruments of various types, including the "Nakra" (Big Drum) and "Ksing Padiah"(small drum); the "Besli" (flute for "solo" recitals) and a variety of other wind instruments like "Sharati", "Shyngwiang" (used for different occasions, sad or joyous); the "Duitara" (a stringed instrument played by striking the strings with a wooden pick), [Dymphong-Reeds of Bamboos].Today the "Spanish Guitar" is more popular and is widely used for festive occasions as well as for general entertainment.

Festival of Dance

Dance is at the very heart of Khasi life, rich in repertoire, performed often as a part of the "rites de passage"- the life-cycle of an individual in society or the annual passage of the seasons.Dances are performed at the level of individual villages (Shnong), a group of villages (Raid) and a conglomeration of Raids (Hima). Local or regional flavours and colours bring variations to the basic dance form, which is universal in Khasi folk culture. Different types of Festivals are :-

  1. Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem
  2. Ka Pom-Blang Nongkrem
  3. Ka-Shad Shyngwiang-Thangiap
  4. Ka-Shad-Kynjoh Khaskain
  5. Ka Bam Khana Shnong
  6. Umsan Nongkharai
  7. Shad Beh Sier

Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem.

Ka Shad Suk MynsiemThe annual spring dance, performed to celebrate harvesting and sowing. The Dance is performed in relation to the agricultural cycle (i.e. the harvesting period and the beginning of the sowing period).

The participants in the dance are both male and female. The female dancers have to be unmarried (virgins), while their male counterparts do not have any such restriction. The costumes and jewellery worn by male and female dancers are described

Traditional Costume

Female Dancers

Cloth draped from waist to ankle (Ka Jingpim Shad). Full sleeve blouse with lacework at the neck (Ka Sopti Mukmor). Two rectangular pieces of gold-thread embroidered cloth, pinned crosswise at the shoulders, overlapping each other (Ka Dhara Rong Ksiar). Necklace made of red coral and foil-covered beads in parallel strings (U Kpieng Paila). Golden ear-rings (Ki Sohshkor Ksier). A gold or silver crown with a braid of very fine silver threads in the back that falls past the waist, often adorned with fresh flowers (Kapangsngiet Ksiar Ne Rupa). Large silver armlets on both arms (Ki Mahu), golden wristlets or bracelets (Kikhadu Ne Ki Syngkha). Semi-circular collar of gold/silver plate tied with a thread around the neck. A silver chain worn round the neck (U Kynjiri Tabah). Handkerchiefs tied to both hands to wipe perspiration off face and forehead (Ki Rumal Rit).

Male Dancers

Male Festive Regalia. Beautiful golden silk turban (Ka Jain spong Khor). Semi-circular collar of gold/silver plate tied round the neck (U Shanryndang). An 18-inch long 'plume 'stuck in the turban (U Thuia). A richly embroidered sleeveless jacket (Ka Jympang). A silver chain worn across the shoulders (U Taban). Silver 'quiver' with silver 'arrows' tied to the waist and an animal tail dangling from the end (Ka Ryngkap). A silver-mesh belt at the waist to cover the cord of the quiver (U Parnpoh Syngkai). Maroon silk cloth worn like a 'dhoti' (Ka Jainboh). A whisk (U Symphiah). A ceremonial sword (Ka Waitlam) and a Handkerchief (Ka Rumar).

The Dance

Drums, flutes and cymbals pick up the tempo in a corner of the arena and themale and female dancers in two separate circles - women in the inner, men on the outer - begin their ritual steps.
Young virgins keep their eyes downcast and dance with minimum body movement, arms loose from the shoulders, body straight. Forward and backward and sideways they shuffle, toes bent as if to grip the ground. They turn as they dance, around the circumference of their circle, and seem to revolve as they move. The men, in sharp contrast, do a energetic, swift and galloping movement around the outer circle, slowing down and speeding up with the rhythm of the drums. At a change of beat they stop and resume and they move clockwise and anti-clockwise, always assuming a posture of "protecting" the women within the circle. Faster and faster move the dancers, as the end of the 'Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem' draws near. Female child dancers retire and the women's circle becomes smaller. They engage in mock duels, sword fights. Interestingly, the women dance on, perhaps at a quicker tempo, seemingly oblivious of the gyrations of their male counterparts. And the dance ends as the sunsets behind the hills. The dance is ritualistic and symbolic of the timeless fertility cult - the women as receptacles of seeds and bearers of fruit and the men as cultivators, who provide the seeds and protect and nurse them till the crop is harvested. This dance takes place at Raid and Hima village level. But a performance at 'Weiking Grounds in Shillong, is a state-recognized, very important festival organised by Seng Khasi.

Ka Pom-Blang Nongkrem

For five days, this festival gives thanks to the Lord Almighty for a good harvest and the participants pray for peace and prosperity of the community. It is among the most prominent of ancestral cultural revivals.

Ka  Pom-Blang NongkremIn earlier days, this festivKa Pom-Blang Nongkremal was celebrated in mid-summer, but today, in conformity with other cultures and for convenience, it is held either in October or November every year.

"Smit", the capital of the Khyrim Syiemship near Shillong, is today the official venue for this very ancient festival. Today, when the Syiem dances in front of the Wooden Pillar called "U Rishot Blei", Biblical echoes seem to appear, reminding one of how Princess Jezebel danced before a wooden pillar ("Ashera" in Hebrew) watched by her father Ethball of the Philistines. The ritualistic sacrifice of goats is also remarkably similar to Biblical history. The Syiem is the administrative head of the Hima (Khasi State). The Syiem (Ka Syiem Sad) is the custodian of rites and rituals. One who prepares the ritual is the elder sister of the King and the Myntries (Council of Ministers) who are the caretakers of all ceremonies, the priests and high priests and all the people join this gorgeous dance festival. Not only to the Gods, ritualistic offerings are made to the ancestors like "Kalawbei U Thawlang" of the ruling clan, Suidnia, the First Maternal Uncle and to the deity of Shillong, asking their blessings for a bumper harvest.

Once the religious rituals are over, the dancers begin their rituals. Unmarried girls in very fine costumes, bedecked with gold and silver crowns on which they place lovely yellow flowers, dance, once again within a circle, shifting forward and backward, moving barefoot in the dust. Men dance, with open swords in one hand and a white yak-hair whisk in the other, in a wide circle. They advance and parry and feint and retreat to the rhythmic beats of the drums and the brassy sounds of cymbals with flutes creating a network of melody in the background.

Ka-Shad Shyngwiang-Thangiap

A ceremonial dance to express sorrow, performed on the occasion of a death in the family. Male musicians play music on the flute, drum and bamboo pole. The dance begins on the day of death, at a place next to the kitchen of the house (called the Rympeiling) and continues till the last rites are performed on the cremation grounds.

Ka-Shad-Kynjoh Khaskain

A dance to commemorate "house-warming" or when a family moves into a new-built home. Once the ritual ceremonies are over, the dance is performed in three stages - Ka Shad Kyuntui, Ka Shad Khalai Miaw and Ka Shad Brap - and lasts through the night till dawn of the next day. The first dance starts about mid-day and lasts till sunset. The second, all-male performance begins after sunset. Dancers display swift footwork. Individual rhythms are important, not synchronized with other dancers in the group. Random play fulness and joyous moods - like cats playing with their kittens in the rosy glow of the sunset are apparent. After dinner, the final dance begins. No formal costumes are required, and women dance in a circle with linked hands and the men dance around them. Dancers hop sideways to the beats of the drum, and the joyous shouts of the bachelor who dance around them make the darkness come alive.

Ka Bam Khana Shnong

Nobody knows when this "Village Community Feasting Festival', began, but it is an event that everyone - men, women and children - look forward to. It is a social get-together, but at the back of it all, it is a time to thank the Lord for the old year past and seek his blessings for the New Year, which is to come.
Originally, the entire village would participate with each home contributing cash or kind (rice, pumpkins etc.). It was expected that the rich would contribute more. And no one, no matter how poor and unable to contribute, was left out of the festivities.
Khasi feasts are rich with succulent "pork" preparations. And the lovely colorful ceremony of bringing wholesome pigs by pony cart decorated with colorful paper streamers and escorted by a group of musicians playing drums and pipes and brought up in the rear by a group of dancers who perform the "Ka-Shad-Lymmuh" is a sight to please all eyes.
The location of the actual feasting is usually a playground or hill-slope, a short distance away from the village. A group of elders, adept in the culinary arts, are selected for cooking. The main group of people arrives in a procession at mid-day. Drummers and pipe-players accompany them. Usually a person or two would rig out as "jester" or clown and lead the procession and all the people dressed in their holiday best dance and sing and laugh to make the hills ring.
When the feast begins, women, children and the elderly are served first. Meanwhile, the men enjoy a draught of rice-beer.

Umsan Nongkharai

The festival is held in spring (April or May), commencing on Sugi Lyngka with a ceremonial sacrifice of a goat and two cocks before the supreme deity of the Khasis - Lei Shyllong. It ends on Sugi-Shillong, with prayers offered at midnight to establish person-to-person contact between the finite and the infinite. After the prayer, male dancers dance to rhythmic drumbeats and trilling flutes, lasting till sunrise. On the second day of the festival, ritualistic prayers are offered for protection against storm and hail, the scourges of the hills. On the third day, divine blessings are sought for material prosperity. On the fourth day a symbolic ritual of using bamboo-spades to scoop up water from both sides of a stream -a "fertility" ritual-is enacted. And on the fifth and final day, public worship (Knia Shoh Dohkha) is done and cocks and nine fish from the river Umran are offered as special gifts.

Shad Beh Sier

This deer-hunting dance is dedicated to occupational merry-making. In off-harvest-season, male hunters roam the dense forests for deer prey. A kill or two, usually made with bow and arrow, becomes a local celebration. Young and adult males mount the slain deer on a bamboo bier and parade it through villages. The hunters with the first arrow-hit are rewarded with the "antlers" of the deer. In-case a "doe" or female deer is brought down, he is given the "skin" as a trophy. The very funny words used by chanters are greeted with loud and appreciative cries of "hoi" and "kiw" by onlookers.

Calender of Festivals

Festivals Local Months Gregorian Months Vedic Months
Solar Lunar
Bamkhana Kyllalyngkot January Tapas Magha
Shad Suk , Mynsiem Laiong-jylliew April-June Sue hi Asharha
Shad Nongkrem Naitung July Nabhas Sravana
Seng Kut Snem Naiweing November Sahas Agrahayana
Christmas Nohprah December Sahasya Pausha